County Board wants to take another look at countywide zoning

The "Z" word is back. Beltrami County commissioners, who six years ago, heeded a rural county revolt not to enact countywide zoning, now want to look at it again. Simply because, they say, there's little else that can be adopted to ensure countyw...

The "Z" word is back.

Beltrami County commissioners, who six years ago, heeded a rural county revolt not to enact countywide zoning, now want to look at it again.

Simply because, they say, there's little else that can be adopted to ensure countywide zoning, considering the bits and pieces that has been enacted in the past five years.

"We've been pursuing land use by ordinance and permit," County Administrator Tony Murphy said during a County Board retreat last week. "We have nit the most pressing issues, and we have de facto land use ordinances. The challenge is the enforcement piece."

The county accepted a comprehensive plan six years ago, outlining what commissioners thought should be prudent land use policies, along with an economic development and transportation plan. But the county didn't formally implement the plan, receiving a backlash of opposition to zoning from mostly rural residents.


"It is an advisory document now, it is not law," Murphy said.

The County Board went so far as establishing a $5,000 grant pool for townships that decided to adopt the county's plan for their township, but there were no takers and the fund never used.

The County Board received an update on the comprehensive plan at their retreat, where no business is taken, but ended up moving toward renewing a push to implement a comprehensive plan and asked Murphy to place it on a work session agenda for debate.

The current comprehensive plan "is near the end of its life," Murphy said. "We've done very, very well."

While not adopting a countywide plan, commissioners in the past five years have enacted a series of ordinances which in essence amount to land use restrictions -- such as where adult book stores can go, how and where a communications company can erect a tower, and an updated public health ordinance with enforcement teeth.

Commissioners are now pondering a new liquor ordinance, which could provide how off-sale and on-sale liquor facilities are to be built and what amenities they must contain.

And commissioners have also updated the county's subdivision controls ordinance, which amounts to land use restrictions in those areas. A shoreland ordinance already covers developments near lakes.

"All we need to do is tidy it up with (countywide) density and land use" provisions, Murphy said.


"The problem is not in (rural Beltrami) but around Bemidji," said County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer. "We may be able to do bifurcated land use."

Environmental Services Director Bill Patnaude showed development figures for the last five years showing most of the county's new building taking place around Bemidji, primarily to the north, west and south of the city.

Countywide for 2006, 586.6 acres were platted involving 361 lots or units, Patnaude said. The most acres by development, 121, were in Northern Township and the most units, 40, were in Bemidji Township. An exception was the 169 units in Hagali Township through the conversion of an already existing recreational vehicle park to an owner-occupied RV village on Gull Lake on 96 acres.

Patnaude said that there was $14.9 million in new home construction in 2005 with 66 units, and $16 million in 2006 with 75 units. There were 201 shoreland building permits in 2005 and 190 in 2006, while there were 177 non-lakeshore sanitary permits in 2005 and 163 in 2006.

"We are not seeing low-cost homes being built on lakeshore," Patnaude said.

Any county land use policy should promote communities in common, said Commissioner Ron Otterstad, a development tool that clusters homes but offers common features such as a shared dock on the lake and a common septic or sewer system.

"CICs really protect the lake and is the way to go," he said. "We need to educate people what CICs are. It allows more density in the building part if they give up more in the riparian part. It is an environmentally friendly way to go."

Otterstad also offered that townships be informed of county wishes to re-look at comprehensive planning and involve them in it.


"We need to tell them that once we get to a certain level, we expect them to adopt that minimum as land use," Otterstad said. "If not, we will do it."

He envisions that the most rural townships can stay under the radar screen, but if they reach a certain population level, the countywide zoning kicks in. "As you grow, you get to a point you need it," he said.

But timing is important, he added, "because there's a problem if we're doing it after the cows are gone from the barn."

Heltzer cautioned that overall policy is preferred over detailing everything. "We don't want with too many details that get into tiny little things.

"There will be residual opposition but we want to be pro-active about it," he said.

Murphy suggested the board follow a process it has used successfully in recent ordinances -- hashing out all the details in work sessions and being clear on a policy direction before bringing the document to a public hearing.

"Some of the tough policy decisions are made at the front end, then let the public input fine-tune what you're doing," he said.

Up front, commissioners need to make clear that the county will have a zoning ordinance, that land use and density will be dealt with, that everyone needs to work together, and that townships may enact their own plans, Murphy said.


"Giving direction right up front is what we should do," said Commissioner Joe Vene, "then you don't invite chaotic discussion."

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, who represents the most rural areas of the county, said he welcomed the effort, that it's time to work on a new comprehensive plan.

"We don't want a Band-Aid fix," he said.

"Individual ordinances are only a mechanical way to devide property," Patnaude said. "There is no land use and no way for innovative decisions to provide environmentally sound projects."

Putting all the ordinances under an umbrella with an administrative process that includes due process with notices to the public and public hearings is the way to go, he said.

"In a way, a real way, zoning is back on the table," Murphy said, adding that staff will look at a process detailing land use and density before putting it before commissioners at a work session. "There's no reason to over-regulate."

"And we need to educate township supervisors that it's not the end of the world," said Heltzer. "Much of the heavy lifting has been done."

Said Murphy: "This will be a grand adventure for us for the next year."

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